🔑 Key Points:
While there are always exceptions, the guitars best suited to fingerpicking tend to be smaller bodied, feature a wider than standard fingerboard, are highly responsive, project individual notes with great clarity and feature a balanced tone, not overly bright or overly bass heavy.
What is Fingerpicking?
In the market for a new guitar and play more in a fingerpicking style as opposed to using a pick? In the following article we’ll break down the answer above in more detail and explain why some guitars are better suited to fingerpicking than others and let you know exactly what to look for when shortlisting your potential new guitar options. This includes the sizes and shapes most suitable, the woods used for construction along with additional characteristics.
But, keep in mind while there are specific combinations of wood, body shape and size that are more commonly associated with fingerpicking than others, the truth is the tone of your guitar is reliant on many different factors. These include how you play the guitar e.g. do you play with a thumb pick or the flesh of your fingers? The strings you use e.g. are they bright or dull sounding? The room you are playing in, along with a thousand other considerations. So, take the information below as a guide but keep in mind there is no substitute to your own ears and your own musical tastes.
The difference between fingerstyle and fingerpicking?
Before we get too far, let’s quickly address an important misconception about fingerstyle and fingerpicking. These terms are often used interchangeably and may result in you receiving the wrong advice when talking to your local music store for example.
Amongst the many styles and approaches to guitar, guitarists in the majority of cases use either a pick (flat picking) or fingers (fingerstyle). Fingerstyle, as a result encompasses a wide range of styles including classical guitar and jazz to name just a couple. As a result there really is no best guitar for fingerstyle, as the term covers far too many genres.
Fingerpicking, on the other hand, is a subset of fingerstyle guitar (much like ‘car’ is a subset of ‘vehicle’) and incorporates an alternating bass pattern played with the thumb while the fingers provide the melody on the treble strings. Finger pickers will sometimes use a thumb pick, but there are many who do not. A variant of fingerpicking is travis picking, although, again the two terms are often used interchangeably.
What makes a good fingerpicking guitar?
Acoustic guitars come in all shapes and sizes. And while it’s often assumed this is for aesthetic purposes only, acoustic guitars are, for the most part, designed in a very deliberate manner to bring out the subtleties and nuances of the style of music they are intended for.
Because of this, the best guitars for fingerpicking take the subtleties of the style of music into account. Because fingerpicking involves playing with the fingers and not a pick (unless using a thumb pick) and plucking individual notes with a constant bass line the ideal fingerpicking guitar needs to be:
- Comfortable to play with the fingers as opposed to strumming
- Provide good separation of strings (ideal when playing with fingers)
- Highly responsive e.g. not require a heavy attack to project volume
- Project individual notes with great clarity
- Balanced tone e.g. bass and treble frequencies are not overly dominant
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the many available options when selecting a new acoustic guitar, including body size and shape along with tonewoods.
Smaller bodied guitars e.g. concert and orchestra styles have long been associated with fingerpicking. This is due to the following:
This will be fairly obvious to most guitarists. A smaller guitar is more comfortable to hold and play due to their more compact size, compared to the larger dreadnought or jumbo which can have an impact on reach and just feel bulkier to play. When playing in a standing position the weight of a smaller bodied guitar is also less.
Some smaller bodied guitars also have a shorter scale length. The shorter the scale length the less tension required on the strings making them more sensitive and simpler to fret.
While a larger bodied instrument e.g. a dreadnought is considered a louder guitar, this tends to refer to its capability to produce volume when played with a pick and incorporating strumming.
Due to the larger internal dimensions of the body, there is more air capable of being displaced. But additional energy is required to displace the air contained within the body cavity.
In the case of guitars best suited to fingerpicking, smaller bodied guitars, when played with the fingers will often produce as much or more volume than a larger bodied guitar, because there is less energy required to move air within a smaller area, making them more responsive to the lighter attack of fingerpicking in general.
All things being equal, the shallower the guitar body, the more focused the tone. As a result, a smaller bodied guitar will typically project individual notes with greater clarity.
Larger bodied instruments produce more of a boomy, bass response due to the deeper sides of the body which push a greater volume of air. As a result the fundamental tone isn’t as dominant and has a deeper cutoff frequency. This is much the same for drums (consider the depth of a snare, in comparison to the bass drum).
Clarity is important when it comes to fingerpicking as this style does not typically include strumming i.e. multiple strings played at once and instead relies on picking out individual notes using the thumb and fingers.
As mentioned, smaller bodied instruments produce less of a bass response than the larger bodied dreadnought. In a practical sense this means the bass notes (remember fingerpicking relies heavily on the thumb playing a constant, accompanying bass line) will not drown out the melody lines being played on the treble strings.
Typically smaller guitars provide a more balanced bass and treble response while accentuating the mid range tones. This also contributes to reducing feedback if playing in front of a mic. Low-frequency resonant feedback is a real problem when playing live.
Many dedicated fingerpicking guitars also position the neck joint at the 12th fret, unlike the standard 14th fret that most acoustic guitars utilise. This provides additional space around the top of the soundhole and affects the position of the internal bracing of the guitar and the bridge.
Because of this the bridge sits further down on the guitar body, placing it in the widest section of the guitar, the middle of the lower bout. While completely subjective, many guitarists believe this produces a warmer, richer sound when played with the fingers.
The shape of the guitar has an impact on two specific areas. The tonal quality and how comfortable the guitar is to play. Many of the guitars considered most ideal for fingerpicking feature tight waists for this reason.
The area between the lower and upper bout is known as the waist of the guitar. Guitars with tighter waists e.g. concert and orchestra shapes as opposed to the larger dreadnought are considered by many as being more comfortable to play in a seated position.
While a larger body produces a boomier more bass driven sound, the shape of the guitar can also influence the sound produced. In the case of the dreadnought for example, the wider waist of the guitar and location of the waist contribute to the boomier, more bass driven sound due to the greater surface area the wider waist allows for.
The Jumbo guitar, a larger bodied guitar than the dreadnought however features a tighter waistline and is a good example of how the shape impacts tone. Generally speaking jumbos are more articulate and balanced than dreadnoughts and this is due to the narrower waist line.
When sound is generated due to the soundboard resonating from the vibrations of the strings, the soundwaves produced bounce around, reflecting the sides of the internal cavity of the guitar body. A tighter waist results in a reduced bass response, nullifying, at least to an extent the boomier nature of the guitar and providing greater clarity.
Additionally, the shape of the guitar itself governs the internal bracing of the guitar which also plays a role in the how the soundboard of the guitar resonates sound.
If you are interested in reading an in-depth guide to tonewoods and how they impact the playability and tone of the guitar check out the complete guide here.
The wood your guitar is built from has a big influence on the sound produced. The soundboard being the most influential component due to it large surface area and direct contact with the bridge that transfers the vibrations from the strings. While tone woods are often the subject of much debate when it comes to electric guitars acoustic guitars rely heavily on the materials used.
How wood affects tone
The more dense the wood the guitar is built from the less the timber can absorb the sound waves generated. When this occurs, sound is reflected at a greater velocity resulting in a faster overall response.
While fingerpicking benefits from this greater response, it can also lead to tonal imbalances e.g. dominant highs and/or lows. Guitars intended for fingerpicking are best when the tone is well balanced e.g. the bass and/or treble frequencies are not overly dominant. As a result less dense timbers generally produce a more balanced sound but sacrifice some responsiveness as a result.
Western red cedar for example is often used by guitarists who play with the fingers. Being a less dense tonewood than Sitka Spruce for example it is credited with a balanced, warm tone. Mahogany, also being a less dense wood is often credited for its mid range punch and greater sustain.
While some tonewoods are considered brighter or more responsive than others, the pairing of the tonewoods used to construct the body and their tonal relationship is also important.
With regard to fingerpicking, common pairings include cedar top with rosewood sides, spruce top with mahogany sides and mahogany top and mahogany sides. But again, much of this is subjective and depends on a number of things including your attack on the guitar e.g. if you are a percussive player a softer soundboard wood is going to get marked and damaged fairly quickly.
While the information above, if considered when choosing your next guitar will provide a good starting point, I’d be remiss not to remind you again that guitar is a highly individual instrument. The subtleties of how you play the guitar, the songs you choose to play and in particular your attack on the guitar will have the largest impact on your sound.
For instance some people swear by dreadnoughts for fingerpicking while others claim the heavier bass resonance drowns out the melodic lines played in accompaniment.
In my opinion, this is most likely due to variability in the approach to the guitar. For instance, if you incorporate strumming along with fingerpicking and have a heavy picking hand a dreadnought is likely to be a better fit for you and feel more comfortable to play. However if you play quieter, folksy music a smaller bodied guitar is likely to be a better fit for you. Other aspects such as the gauge of string you use and even very specific things like the joints of the guitar e.g. the neck joint and how they contribute to tonal loss if there are differences in their acoustic properties between the body and neck.
Remember the most important aspect of your tone is you, and the way you play the guitar. So, experiment, try out a number of guitars before settling on the guitar you consider the best for fingerpicking.